We huddled in the shed like green monsters. A single opaque window glowed the color of corn silk.
I sucked each purified breath through valves and canisters and activated charcoal, each exhale echoing inside my gas mask. A chemical warfare suit hung heavy on my frame. Sweat collected in the fingers of my rubber gloves. My nose twitched and itched inside the impenetrable shell.
The sergeant explained in muffled tones that this gear might one day save our lives. He told a story about giving this same drill to some officers. How he gassed the fuck out of the shed with tear gas to really show them the business. How they cried like a bunch of pansies when they took off their masks.
With that, he pulled the pins on two black canisters and set them on the ground. Pink smoke fumed from the canisters like clouds of cotton candy.
"This shit works," said the sergeant, tapping the clear shield of his mask. His eyes were small and dark and darting. "We're going to work left to right and then front to back. When I call you up here, you take off your mask and answer the question I ask before leaving the room. Answer the fucking question... You clueless jokers understand?"
We bobbed our gas-masked heads inside the now rose-colored room.
I found myself dead center of the group. I'd have a chance to see how things would go for the other soldiers, to see what kinds of questions he'd ask.
He asked one of the same three questions over and over: Last name? Rank? Hometown?
Without fail, some burly guy would take off his mask and run out without answering the simple question. I laughed each time this happened. These were the same pussies that passed out during inoculations, crumbling to the floor in their tighty-whiteys because of a shot.
I'd etched my responses in my brain. I was prepared when my turn came. I would answer my question and split.
My heart beat faster as I approached. I fought to inhale one last deep breath. I removed my gas mask. A cloud of purified air surrounded my head, and the corners of my mouth raised in a smile, as if pulled by marionette strings.
The gas hit my face. And my skin burned. And my eyes burned. And my nose burned. And my lungs burned.
Fire. Fire. Fire. Fucking fire. Everything was on fire.
"Last four of your social security number?" asked the sergeant.
Confused, I gasped and coughed and ran from the shed without even trying to answer.
I emerged exoculated, a stumbling blind Oedipus. My hands clawed at the darkness. I fell to my knees, ashamed. Snot hung from my nose like thick strings of egg white. Tears wet my face. I hacked and coughed and spit.
I waited for the pain to subside. I worried that I'd made a fool of myself, that people were laughing at me.
As the world blurred into focus, I saw that everyone was blind and crying and snotting and falling to their knees.
And I wondered to myself: Is this the way the world ends?